It is not uncommon for parties to a divorce to consider joint physical custody. A joint physical custody arrangement occurs when the children spend approximately equal time with each parent. In some cases, this is best for the children. In many cases, the parents seek this because it lowers child support or it satisfies the emotions of the parents regardless of the effect on the children. In many cases, joint legal custody is not beneficial to the children. Experienced divorce lawyers should be prepared to discuss the potential for joint physical custody with their clients.
Before a divorce occurs, the parents develop responsibilities and
patterns within the marriage. If the parties equally share the
parenting responsibilities then it is appropriate to consider joint
physical custody. On the other hand, if the parents have an
arrangement where one party has primary responsibility for the
children, then that parent should continue to have primary physical
Joint physical custody is much more difficult than one parent
having primary physical custody. It requires more cooperation
between the parents. Joint custody should not be considered under
the following circumstances:
1. The parties are not close to each other geographically.
Joint physical custody works on the theory that the children have
two homes in the same school district or close enough that they have
a short commute to school. If the parties live so far apart that the
children don't have a reasonable commute, the children suffer. Long
commutes interfere with children's sleep, homework, extra curricular
activities, and relationships with their peers. Child custody
arrangements should encourage the children to excel in school.
An alternative to having the children move from one parent's home
to the other is an arrangment called a “bird's nest.” In a
bird's nest arrangement, the children stay in one home and the
parents move in and out of the home. This even more difficult than
having two homes in the same area. However, it does allow one parent
to have a residence some distance away.
2. The parents cannot communicate.
Joint custody requires the parents to communicate and cooperate.
Children's schedules are constantly changing. The parties need to
communicate regularly to have smooth exchanges. The frequent
exchanges require communication on homework, school books, clothing,
and toys. If the parties can't communicate, joint custody usually
fails. Communication is usually very difficult if one parent is
overly controlling, has a history of drug or alcohol abuse or has
been physically abusive.
Joint physical custody is very difficult for most couples.
However, if the parties can overcome the obstacles and succeed with a
joint custody arrangement, the children may benefit.